A split award from NERC to the Universities of Oxford and Wales, Aberystwyth as part of the NERC funded Environmental Factors in the Chronology of Human Evolution and Dispersal (EFCHED) programme.

Africa was a critical location in the emergence and dispersal of anatomically modern humans (AMHs) in the period since Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 5. Environmental factors played an important role in range expansion and contraction of antecedent Middle Palaeolithic/Middle Stone Age (MP/MSA) and early Upper Palaeolithic/Late Stone Age (UP/LSA) populations in Africa and understanding their significance requires evaluation of the nature and chronology of environmental and archaeological records. The NERC EFCHED programme, which funds this project, investigates these issues. See the EFCHED website for the wider programme.

In order to development chronologies of human use and change in key environmental contexts, this project applies luminescence dating techniques to sediments from a range of key palaeoenvironmental and archaeological contexts in Africa, especially in dryland regions where the ability for human survival and development may have been challenged, or promoted, by environmental challenges. Sites considered in the project include geographically widespread African archaeological sites in Mali (Ounjougou), Sudan (Sai Island), Kenya (Kenyan Rift Valley and Narok valley), Zambia (Luangwa valley) and South Africa (Blombos and Sibudu caves). The sites in Libya and southern Africa are being studied in Oxford while work on the Kenyan, Zambian and South African sites is being carried out in Aberystwyth. This work will provide a consistent chronology for the later MP/MSA and the transition from the MP/MSA and UP/LSA.

A key component of the work centred at Oxford is an investigation of the timing and frequency of 'mega lake' stages during the late Quaternary in northern and southern African drylands. The occurrence of wet phases in, for example, the Sahara, and the presence of large water bodies, has widely been speculated as critical for allowing human movement and dispersal through environments that are today extremely hostile to life. In the Kalahari of southern Africa, located close to key areas for hominid evolution and human development, the presence of bodies of water in a vast region that is today devoid of surface water may hold clues for understanding linkages between South and East Africa, as well as the movement of human groups through time.

The climatic backdrop to activity at the North African archaeological sites and through southern Africa is being studied using lacustrine sediments from large closed basins in Chad, Libya and Botswana. Work in Libya links to the Libyan Palaeolake Project, a wider initiative on North African lakes.

These data will allow the production of an internally consistent chronology for African humidity spanning the last 200ka, as well as allowing assessment of the hemispheric similarities or contrasts in wet-phase timing. A key ongoing finding from the chronometric investigations is that mega-lakes may not have been isolated events at any location, but may have occurred frequently and repeatedly through the late Quaternary.